Bethlehem More Upbeat This Christmas

30,000 Expected to Visit Jesus’ Town of Birth

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, DEC. 24, 2005 ( More than 30,000 people were expected to flock to the town of Jesus’ birth, in what could be the largest Christmas turnout since the start of turmoil in September 2000.

Pilgrims gathered today in Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, built over the site where tradition says Jesus was born, to watch a procession of marching bands, bagpipe players and boy scout parades, the Associated Press reported.

Israel’s summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a drop in violence this year added to the joyful atmosphere.

Hopes for Mideast peace were shared by Catholics around the world. On Thursday, the Catholic bishops of Ireland sent a Christmas message to Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem in support of Christians in the Holy Land.

«We wish to express our solidarity with you and the Christians of the Holy Land, who for the sixth consecutive year must suffer fear and despair as a result of the present political situation,» the message said. «We also deplore the resulting violence perpetrated by all sides in this ongoing conflict.

«We acknowledge and we express our concern that as a result of this appalling situation an increasing number of Christians feel compelled to leave the land of their birth to make their home in foreign lands.»

Visits encouraged

The message continued: «In addition, we deplore the consequences of the current program of wall and fence building, which is set to continue, which further deepens the sense of separation between the different peoples in the Holy Land.

«At this time we encourage Christians everywhere to visit the Holy Land and especially Bethlehem despite the ongoing difficulties in the region.

«This Christmas as we pray for justice and peace for all peoples in the land of Our Lord’s birth, may we reassure you of our prayerful support. Our hope is expressed in Pope Benedict XVI’s letter for World Day of Peace, wherein he states: ‘Peace is an irrepressible yearning present in the heart of each person regardless of his or her particular culture or identity.'»

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